In addition to promoting physical activity, engaging outdoor learning environments play a significant role in the development of children’s behavioural and social skills.
This month on We Hear You, we explore the importance of outdoor play in a world that is becoming increasingly technological and outline the requirements for outdoor environments in education and care services.
In a world where play is becoming more sedimentary and screen-based, how can we maximise play and learning in the outdoor environment? In studies on children’s perspectives in the outdoor environment, the children found the outdoor environment to be a place which offers the opportunity to pretend, socialise, observe and move (Merewether, 2015). Research has also identified that some educators view the outdoor environment only as a place for gross motor activities with inherent risks (Leggett & Newman, 2017).
All centre based education and care services must provide access to unencumbered outdoor space that is at least seven square metres for each child (Regulation 108 (2)). All services, including family day care and outside school hours care, should allow children to explore and experience a natural environment (Regulation 113) that is adequately shaded (Regulation 114).
The rise in the interest in forest schools, beach, river and bush kindergartens have seen educators and children exploring outdoor learning environments, outside the realm of their service fence or family day care backyard. It’s outdoors in which children learn that many environments are fragile. Children become aware of how we can treasure and show respect for these spaces (Robertson, 2011) while also becoming socially responsible and showing respect and care for the environment in which they live and learn.
The learning frameworks reinforce the notion that engaging in play and leisure outdoors allows children to develop their emerging autonomy, independence, resilience, their understanding of the inter-dependence of living things and their sense of agency (adapted from the Early Years Learning Framework, p. 21; and the Framework for School Age Care, p. 20).
Outdoors, children move and play in different ways – there is a lot to see, hear, touch, experience, explore and even taste when playing outdoors.
The outdoor environment provides children with the ability to engage with the natural world and explore nature and concepts through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning. The possibilities for a child to learn about their world is endless while playing outdoors, as are the opportunities for educators to scaffold learning, curiosity and development.
Outdoor play promotes children’s physical and psychological development through physical activities and play experiences that are challenging, extend thinking and offer opportunities to assess and take appropriate risks. It is important for educators to undertake risk benefit analyses to understand when and what risky play can benefit children’s learning, outweighing the risk and minimising any unacceptable or unnecessary risks. Educators can scaffold school age children to consider the foreseeable risk of an activity of their choice, against the benefits of a stimulating play outdoor environment (Guide to the NQF).
In response to the growing body of research which identifies the health risks for children resulting from an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, the Australian Government guidelines on physical activity provide guidance on the amount of physical activity children should be engaging in. At least seven square metres per child is more than a calculation, and providing access to the natural environment is more than being outdoors. Interesting and engaging outdoor space promises endless possibilities and opportunities for children to create their own learnings, test their theories, identify and build their capabilities, use their imaginations to construct and create and work collaboratively with others, while building a respect for and valuing of the natural environment.
A topic for the next team meeting could be to consider strategies to further enhance the learning outcomes in the outdoor environment.
Leggett, N. & Newman, L. (2017). ‘Challenging educators’ beliefs about play in the indoor and outdoor environment.’ Australian journal of early childhood, 42 (1), pp. 24-32.
Mereweather, J. (2015). ‘Young children’s perspectives of outdoor learning spaces: What matters?’ Australian journal of early childhood, 40(1), pp. 99-108.
Robertson, J. (2011). ‘Who needs a forest?’ Rattler, 99, pp. 10-13.
Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQA’s National Education Leader, speaks with Tina Thompson, Koori Preschool Assistant at Berrimba Child Care Centre in Echuca, Victoria about their bush kinder program.
Every Monday at Berrimba Child Care Centre, children aged three and above are taken into the bush for a three hour program of exploring and activities. These visits provide opportunities for children to connect to the land, live their culture and explore nature, as well as scientific and maths concepts.
Tina spoke to me about the smoking and Welcome to Country (in language) ceremonies that educators and children collaboratively participate in to recognise the traditional owners and to cleanse their spirits. She talked about the valuable opportunities for children as they play and explore in the bush, giving time to leave behind any troubles they may be experiencing. Tina explained how “children need to know their culture, identity and be strong and proud, knowing and valuing their rich culture”.
Science is a feature of these excursions into the bush with lots of discussion about the natural creations. For example, children were fascinated with the drying mud; Tina laughingly reported that children, at first, thought it was chocolate. The children talked and theorised about where the water goes. “It is really important to get our culture back and being out in bush kinder is a great way to connect with the ancestors and to thank Mother Nature for all the beauty around us,” said Tina.
An example of an effective learning experience occurred when children at the service learned how to make a canoe under the guidance of Uncle Rick, an esteemed Aboriginal elder and strong male role model in the community. Educators take iPads to record the rich learnings, and share these with families and others in the community. “Children are learning about sustainability. Aboriginal people for generations have only taken what they needed; it is important for children to learn to respect and care for nature and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors,” she added.
Last year, the children made a humpy (a shelter) in this beautiful natural environment. The educators were available to help and guide but the initiative, ideas and problem solving came from the children. “They are amazing,” Tina noted, explaining how they cooperatively gathered the sticks and worked out how to build it so it would stay up. During each visit, they would add to the structure, help each other, and play in and use it in a variety of ways, allowing each other space to explore, work and play.
“We might turn over a log and study the bugs, but we don’t take them away,” she said. “We talk about our totems and why we don’t eat our totem. We don’t take the bugs, insects, stones, sticks or anything we find, just study them and marvel in the beauty of nature.”
“We have a lot of strong leaders in our community and children in our service are showing skills that will make them great community leaders of the future, leaders who can advocate and fight for the needs and rights of our people. The children are teaching their parents and family members.”
The identified benefits of the bush kinder include:
increasing evidence that children’s inner wellbeing is benefitted by being outdoors as the natural environment enhances their health, learning and behaviour by supporting personal and social development, as well as physical and mental health
the sense of calm and restoration gained from spending time in the bush
providing children with a connection while they are young, and the hope they will build a sense of belonging and respect for the country as they grow.
Back at the service, educators can regularly be observed putting ochre (traditional Aboriginal body paint) on the young children and babies, and singing songs in language and dancing along. Tina pays respect to her colleagues Leona Cooper (jokingly called Boss Lady) and Joyce Ward, two women strong in their culture and relentless advocates for their families and community. These women work long and hard to ensure no child falls through the cracks and to advocate for these opportunities to continue to enrich the lives of children in the Echuca community.
To finish, Tina draws my attention to a quote from Jenny Beer (from the Aboriginal language group Wergaia):
“…if we don’t learn our language, then our kids, in future generations will be like us, looking for our identity, going through that identity crisis.”
How can we give children more opportunities to contribute meaningfully? To their services? To their community? To their cities and world? Bridget Isichei, an early childhood educator and former director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill Preschool Grafton and area manager for Goodstart Early Learning, writes this month about the journey of children’s participation in an exciting council playground project.
For most of my own career, enacting this meant asking children to contribute to the design of their play-space or encouraging them to develop their own behaviour guidelines (in line with National Quality Standard Element 1.1.6). More recently, I have been engaged in a project that has changed my thinking about this. I now realise we can do more and dream of a world where children are given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to community discussion, and mould the cities and towns that they live in from the day they are born.
The project started during my time as the Director of UnitingCare Jack and Jill, when a group of preschool children wrote to the Clarence Valley Council to express their opinion that their town had insufficient playgrounds, and asking if they could design a better one. To our delight, the council agreed at the perfect time since they had budgeted for a new playground the following year. Within just a few months the council saw the value of consulting young children and invited three other early education and care services to become involved. As the director of the preschool that originally approached the council, I was given a place on their committee.
Some of my strategies and key learnings from the project were:
At first educators held large groups and expected every child to contribute:
We reflected and decided that although children have the right to participate, they don’t have to. We set up a learning space in each service where children could visit and record ideas if they were interested in the project.
We expected all educators, park designers and council members to know why children have the right to participate:
We spent time explaining the benefits of children’s participation and voice to all stakeholders.
We asked children to contribute ideas without giving them the tools, knowledge and resources they needed:
Educators decided to hold small group times for interested children to increase their knowledge about playground design, recycling and inclusion. The designated learning area was set up with books and information about the project so the children could revisit the area and build skills over time. Continuous learning, high expectations and intentional teaching were therefore critical elements in making the project successful.
Children came up with too many ideas to use:
Children were encouraged to reflect on and refine their ideas. Children were given the opportunity to consult with each other and park design professionals to find out if their ideas were practical. By revisiting these ideas regularly, children were able to develop their thinking.
The design for the new park now includes signs written by the children, has equipment that is inclusive of all children, recycling bins, a very tall tower, sand and water play and children’s art. The park will have a special seat that ‘you can sit on if you have no friends and someone will come to play with you’. When a child suggested this, I knew that this inclusive idea was very important, but something an adult would be unlikely to think of.
Children have unique perspectives, and the world is a lesser place when we don’t listen to them.
Educators at Goodstart Red Hill had long admired forest kindergartens from afar, never really considering how that might look in an Australian setting. Then they realised they had an amazing and diverse environment right on their doorstep. Skye Devereaux, Early Childhood Teacher and Educational Leader, writes this month on how Goodstart Red Hill developed their Nature Space program.
The Educational Leadership team at Red Hill had a goal to provide all our children with regular opportunities to connect with nature and develop a sense of wonder, curiosity and respect for the environment around them. We wanted children to develop a love for nature and the world in which they live, in the hope that they have a strong connection with the environment they grow up in and, maybe one day, will figure out how to fix the environmental issues they inherit.
The planning process was extensive, spanning many months from when the idea was born in late 2013. We identified a nearby wild space with access to Ithaca Creek, which our service backs on to, and a wonderful enclosed forest space. Excursion plans were completed, along with a variety of risk and benefit assessments for the different activities we imagined would take place. We consulted with the Goodstart Health and Safety Team, seeking advice and guidance. The Red Hill educational team participated in training with Nikki Buchan, an educational consultant, on bush schools and the benefits of wild nature play. An event was then held to inform parents about the Nature Space program where we invited feedback and answered questions.
After this preparation we began taking small, mixed age, focus groups of children to the wild space, observing how they engaged in the space and the supports they (and we) needed.
We hosted a weekend Clean Up Australia Day event with our families, introducing them to the wild space. Fifty people from our learning community attended and our risk and benefit assessments were displayed through the wild space.
At the end of February 2014, we began taking whole class groups out to the wild space. Each class, from toddler through to kindergarten, ventured out for one morning each week between 10am and 11.30am. We packed our little red wagon with first aid essentials, water bottles and baskets for collecting, and let the natural environment seize our imaginations and guide our play.
Since beginning our nature play program, the children at Red Hill are noticeably more confident and resilient learners, with an adventurous, enquiry based approach to learning. Through their play in the wild space they have become proficient at self-risk assessment, and approach risky play with careful consideration and minimal, respectful support from their peers and teachers.
The children have learned to slow down and spend time to look, watch and wonder. The Nature Space program allows time for the children to imagine and create using only what the environment provides. A log becomes a baby, crushed bark some snow and a bouncing log becomes a rocket, a horse or a broomstick.
Children willingly collaborate and support one another in the challenges presented with determined perseverance and confidence in their eventual success, if not this week then perhaps the next. The older children, now with several years of play experience in the space, share their stories and pass down skills to the younger children and so each new year group learns about the Magical Forest, Sunshine Hill and The Giant’s Chair, each named by children who have now passed through the dense trees and leafy carpet for a final time. They are creating new, oral histories but at the same time are curious about the original occupants of the space, wondering what came before.
In the two and a half years since the program launched, the way we inhabit the space has changed somewhat. As the environment and our knowledge of it have developed, so too has our play. While our time was initially focussed on the creek and Sunshine Hill, now we play almost exclusively in the forest.
Make believe play has emerged as the prevailing form during the visits, with games and ideas carrying over weeks and even months.
Mindfulness has become a focus of the groups’ visits with children engaged in before and after practices of being, reflecting on their presence in time and space.
Our hope continues to be that these children will grow up with fond childhood memories of their time spent in this space with us, and leave us having developed a strong connection to and understanding of the world around them.
“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.” Lella Gandini (1998)
We have long known about the importance of the environment in supporting children’s learning and development and construction of knowledge. Recognising this, educators from the Reggio Emilia program in Italy refer to the environment as the ‘the third teacher’.
The Early Years Learning Framework and Framework for School Age Care remind us of the importance of drawing on pedagogical practices to create physical and social learning environments that are welcoming, enriching, responsive to children’s interests and that have a positive impact on children’s learning.
As children approach learning by using their senses, the physical environment has enormous potential to influence a child’s learning and experiences.
Well-designed indoor and outdoor physical environments can capitalise on children’s amazing sense of curiosity, awe and determination while engaging with people and their surroundings promote children’s potential learning in built and natural environments. Play spaces should be interesting, engaging and allow children to extend their thinking, problem-solving skills and learning. Providing children with opportunities to learn how to assess and take appropriate risks is also essential for healthy childhood development. Tim Gill, a playground consultant from the UK who regularly visits Australia offers helpful insights on his website (Rethinking Childhood) about risk-benefit analysis and the importance of supporting children to take appropriate risks.
Educators should also consider how children are supported to engage in their environment, with other children, and how the environment is resourced and organised. Intentionality in how the space is organised and how children are supported in their play can impact on the quality of experiences and relationships developed.
Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. Also it needs to be designed and organised in a way that supports the participation of all children and the effective implementation of the learning program.
It is important to be aware of the National Quality Standard and related regulatory standards. It is also important to source information about relevant safety standards from reputable organisations such as Kidsafe and Standards Australia.
Once you understand the requirements, it is important to consider how the environment will contribute to the effective implementation of the learning program and how it can promote:
participation by every child
the flow between indoor and outdoor spaces
smooth transitions between activities and spaces
competence, independent exploration and learning through play
engagement with the natural environment
positive relationships between children
children’s understanding, respect, care and appreciation for the natural
environmental sustainability and assist children to become environmentally responsible
flexibility – allowing re-organisation to maintain interest and challenge
a welcoming and comfortable ambience.
Involving all stakeholders, including management, educators, families and children, in decisions about the design, organisation and use of the environment is likely to build shared commitment and provide opportunities for a variety of ideas to be considered and included.
The Early Years Learning Framework (page 9) and the Framework for School Age Care (page 6) recognise the learning environment as a key practice and identify environments that are designed to foster children’s learning and development, as a key contributor to curriculum or program.
Margie Carter, Making Your Environment “The Third Teacher” in Exchange July/August 2007
Play based experiences are a vital vehicle for children’s learning and development. Research shows the inherent relationship between sensory learning and children’s enhanced cognitive, social and physical development. This is because children gain understanding about the world by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving and hearing the things they are learning about.
The National Quality Framework encourages educators to consider how the physical environment, and the way that indoor and outdoor spaces are designed, will support children’s learning. Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. It also needs to be organised to support the participation of all children and implementation of the learning program. Recognition of the learning potential of environments is noted in the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework, which encourages educators to ‘create learning environments that encourage children to explore, solve problems, create and construct’ (p.15).
It is important that we don’t underestimate the value of the learning promoted by being outside. Outdoor environments offer challenges and countless opportunities for healthy active play, while also learning to assess and take appropriate risks. Educators can enhance the choice and quality of learning experiences by supporting flexible use and interaction
between indoor and outdoor spaces. Children can learn about and respect the interdependence between people and nature by using their senses to explore natural environments.
Supporting indoor and outdoor play
When designing and planning the learning environment, consideration needs to be given to children’s individual interests, skills and capabilities. The design of the play environment helps to promote independence, decision making, interaction, relationship building and testing theories.
Engaging in sustained shared conversations by respectfully engaging with children allows educators to extend and support children’s thinking and learning. The image below from the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework shows the balance between guided play and learning, adult led learning and child-directed play and learning.
Ruth Garlick, an early childhood consultant for NSW Department of Education and Communities, has worked in the sector for more than 25 years. She recently was awarded the Premier’s University of Wollongong Early Childhood Scholarship, which included undertaking a study tour of Europe and Britain to visit several Nature Kindergartens. We hear from Ruth about her study tour and the importance of play whilst connecting children to nature.
As an early childhood educator of more than 25 years, I often look back at my own childhood and wonder if I had somehow missed out by not going to preschool. Who would I be now if I had been given the chance to express my imaginings at an easel or create new worlds in the block corner? Our childhood provides the rare opportunity to explore and interact with the world without fear or judgment, our experiences and interactions shaping who we will be as adults.
While I didn’t go to preschool, I did enjoy experiences that were rich in learning: I had a childhood of outdoor play. I was blessed with an expansive backyard, flower beds, veggie gardens and trees to climb. My childhood was ‘free range’ – one of danger and risks. Bumps and scrapes were an everyday event. We were left to our own devices for hours on end, even days on end during weekends and holidays. We would only return indoors for food, or comfort if something went wrong. Mothers would call from verandahs as the street lights came on. Kids would emerge from trees, cubbies and dried-out dams, racing home on bikes or in battered billy carts, shaking off dirt, scraping off mud and reluctantly going indoors for the family meal, then bath, TV and bed.
I recall one of my earliest memories from when I was four or five, and the grief is still palpable. I had come across a dead magpie, lying on its belly, wings outstretched and head to the side, its lifeless eyes open to the elements and to me. It was under one of the many trees on our property and I was a long way from the house. I sat with the creature, patting its perfect black and white feathers, and sobbed my heart out.
What was it about my early childhood experiences that gave me such an affinity with animals and with the environments that support their existence?
In a world where green time is being replaced with screen time, how do children connect to their natural environment? How do we protect our wild spaces into the future? How do we promote sustainability? And whose responsibility is it?
I recently returned from a study tour where I investigated the concept of early childhood forest schools in Scotland, England and Denmark. This was made possible through the Premier’s University of Wollongong Early Childhood Scholarship. I spent a month visiting sites where outdoor learning is either a major component of the educational setting or is the only component. At some of the sites, the children are outdoors in natural settings for the whole day, in all weathers, and have limited access to an indoor space. At other sites, there was a natural and free movement from indoors to outdoors and the play spaces outside were carefully planned with the use of natural elements in mind (and soul). Children’s voices were clearly represented in the designs and provisions. In one instance, a child’s drawing was exactly replicated in the design of a cubby. This was no token response to a child’s idea. It incorporated many months of collaboration and negotiation, documented in a book for all to share for years to come. What started out as a stark concrete space squeezed between tight inner city apartments became a haven for children, a place where biodiversity could flourish. Small but dynamic. I stayed in Edinburgh for 10 days and as I wandered the streets, the only place I saw a butterfly was in this tiny garden.
During my journey, I kept a blog so I could share the learnings and discoveries which resonated most with me, and I am currently working on a report which will incorporate the research and theories behind my reflections. You will find my blog here: inurturenature.blogspot.com.au
A number of themes presented themselves throughout the study tour.
At every setting, I was met with a strong leadership team which successfully enabled change, bringing a shared vision of rich outdoor experiences to fruition. I was amazed by the impact this leadership had on the staff, on the parents and on the children. I saw leadership shared, with joint collaborations and support for the sort of rich learning that children were accessing every minute of the day.
A COMMITMENT TO LIFELONG DISPOSITIONS FOR LEARNING
We all want children to leave their prior-to-school setting with the ability to succeed in their next adventure, that of formal schooling, but a response to this has often been to formalise early education and prepare children for academic learning, school structures, rules and conformity. In the settings I visited, I experienced a commitment to lifelong dispositions to learning. I interviewed parents about their aspirations for their children, and the message was loud and clear. They want their children to be confident, articulate, resilient and persistent. Surely these characteristics should hold as much, if not more, value in early education than teaching children how to hold their pencil accurately or how to count to 10? If we provide children with strong dispositions for learning, we are preparing them for life, not just for the formalised structures of schooling.
As a society, we have become so risk-averse that children are often prevented from making judgements and assessing their own capacities and abilities. At Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, I walked along a fallen tree with a two year old. As we began, we were about a metre off the ground but as we progressed, the slope of the hill that the tree was resting on gave us more height. We would have been almost three metres off the ground before she took my hand and said “too big”. We made our way back and I was amazed at her ability to make her own judgment and at my ability to trust her instincts. At every site I was confronted with the dangers of tree climbing, bush walking, scampering over rocks, swinging on ropes and scaling to the tops of splintery stumps. There were brambles, uneven ground, stinging nettles and tree roots to trip on. Sticks were one of the main sources of play equipment and I saw them being used in a wide variety of ways. They are a great resource for open-ended play. I saw educators trusting children to make their own risk assessments. While the educators were available for support and guidance, there was no hovering or warnings to ‘be careful, you’ll fall’. Risk was viewed as a benefit, not something that needed to be managed.
An engaging and exciting outdoor space that is filled with natural elements gives children opportunity for long periods of uninterrupted play and autonomy. At Cowgate under 5’s Centre, I accompanied the children to their forest site. There the educators followed children’s lead for the whole day. The day ebbed and flowed with the children deciding where they would explore and when it was time for the next adventure. The educator gave the children time, expertly listening to the group and helping the children to listen to each other. It was responsive and intuitive. I watched a small child lay himself close to the ground, as if needing to be one with the earth, and methodically construct a sand bridge with a hole he could look through. It took about an hour. He was in the flow zone where time ceases to matter and learning is optimised.
OUTDOOR LEARNING EQUALS REAL LEARNING
Often we see the outdoor component of play as a place to run off steam before the real learning commences indoors. When children are given opportunities for extended periods of play outdoors, their senses are ignited, their affinity with active learning is activated, their curiosity and exploratory natures are set free and problem solving becomes a natural response to difficulties that need to be overcome. My experiences during my study tour consolidated this belief, which has always underpinned my early childhood ethos. The principles, practices and learning outcomes within the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) are all promoted through outdoor learning. Take any component of the EYLF and I know I could come up with an example from my trip that demonstrates how outdoor learning can provide a responsive approach within educational settings. I’m up for that challenge, maybe you could be too?
I encourage all early childhood educators to take a stand for outdoor learning in natural play spaces, not only for what it can do to promote a more sustainable future, but for the benefits it can bring to our children at this very moment. A sense of ‘belonging’ to the earth is the first step to ‘being’ at peace within it. With these in place we will be more able to solve what is to ‘become’ of our fragile planet into the future.
So, what is one thing that you can do? Decide what it is, preferably with the help of the children that you are educating, and do it. Then please celebrate what you have achieved together. I’d love to hear of your ideas. Feel free to comment on the blog.